The reason for this dinner would be to apologise to Artur Rubinstein, the Polish born pianist, for the disgraceful way he was treated one year earlier at the home of Sybil Colefax, the well-known London hostess. She had invited him to play for the new King Edward 8th and his lover Mrs Simpson and he agreed as a special favour although he hated such after dinner performances. Six months after the abdication, I’d love to know what these six people now think of the exiled couple, recently married outside Tours in France and destined to live an aimless life in exile as Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Rubinstein would spit out the story of June 1936. After playing three Chopin nocturnes during which the King, seated on a stool close to the piano, had chatted intermittently, openly displaying his boredom, Rubinstein prepared himself for a fourth. But before he could do so the King got up walked over to him saying: “We enjoyed that very much, Mr Rubinstein,” as everyone knew, a clear command to stop. Rubinstein made a barely audible reply, “I am afraid that you do not like my playing, Your Majesty” and walked out. Princesse de Polignac, the former sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer and a noted musician herself, shocked at the rudeness towards Rubinstein, left with him. Now she explained why, convinced such philistinism could never happen in Paris where she hosted musical salons and commissioned several French composers including Satie, Ravel and Poulenc. Neither she nor Rubinstein would show any further interest in the Duke and Duchess.
Sybil Colefax was mortified. This dinner party would be her chance to apologise to the maestro. She was one of Wallis’s few genuine friends to whom Wallis wrote about her desperation to escape perhaps even going to China. Sybil argued over dinner that the abdication could have been avoided. She felt sympathy for Wallis.
Leon Blum, the first socialist and first Jewish prime minister of France, loved music but had recently been beaten up and accused of elitism after visiting the opera so this private occasion would provide balm following his recent resignation.. As a socialist he cared little for any monarch but now this ex-King was living in France he wanted to know if, as was rumoured, the man who spoke such fluent German was a Nazi sympathiser.
Noel Coward had punctured the tense atmosphere almost a year ago by immediately walking over to the piano and playing his popular tune, Mrs Worthington. But now he was arguing that every town in England should, in gratitude, boast a statue of Wallis Simpson.
Kitty de Rothschild, an American friend of Wallis’s who had put her Austrian home Schloss Enzesfeld at the Duke’s disposal in December 1936, would amuse the guests by telling them how Wallis accused the Duke of flirting with her. This would be her chance to complain about the enormous phone bills run up by the Duke every day which she was expected to pay. When she left, the duke, too busy knitting a sweater for Wallis, failed to say goodbye.
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman – the life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor